Anthem for Doomed Youth

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Anthem for Doomed Youth

by Wilfred Owen

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
      — Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
      Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells; 
      Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,—
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
      And bugles calling for them from sad shires.

What candles may be held to speed them all?
      Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes.
      The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.


This poem by Wilfred Owen is 14 lines, divided between an 8 line stanza and a six line stanza. The rhyme scheme is ABABCDCD EFFEGG. It is a sonnet, with an octave and a sestet, which is often a feature of a Petrarchan sonnet. The rhyme scheme, though, is more closely associated with Shakespearean sonnets.

The first notable thing about the poem is its title. While it refers to itself as an Anthem, the word in the title seems out of place. Anthem usually refers to something positive. The poem is decidedly lacking in positivity.

The focus of the first eight lines is on the sounds of battle. Owen also describes soldiers dying as cattle, indicating that this is not a glamorous end of life, for the soldiers, but their deaths are instead rather cruel and perhaps pointless.

No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells; 
      Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,—
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;

Line five describes sounds that the soldiers might have heard before leaving for war – mockeries (perhaps from war protesters), or prayers from those who support them and hope for their return. Line six says there is not even a voice of mourning for them. The only noise is the sound of battle – described as a shrill, demented choir. Owen even describes the shells as wailing. No part of this description is viewed as positive, and the adjective choices bear that out.

The humanity of the scene is stripped away, and nothing remains except the voices and songs of the inanimate tools of war.

The shells are a wailing choir. The rifles are stuttering. The bugles are calling. We see in this octave an evil mechanized inversion of humanity, replacing humanity within the pictured scene.

The sestet stanza marks a change in the tone. Here we see non-human things (gentle and non-militaristic) being credited to the humans. Owen describes a candle in the eyes of the soldiers, “a holy glimmer” marking their goodbyes.

Line twelve describes a pall – which in case you are unaware, is a heavy cloth used to cover a coffin. Thus we see that the pallor of the girls’ faces – their grief – will be the thing that covered the dead men. We assume that the girls are likely the girlfriends, wives, sisters and mothers. Women are historically not often participants in the wars which are fought, except in the sense that they participate in trying to make life work while loved ones are away, and they participate in the aftermath of war (described here.)

Line 13 refers to patient minds. I think it is likely that patient here is probably meant to convey the idea of “long suffering.” Loved ones at home wait and suffer in their waiting, while loved ones are in mortal danger. Flowers then are places upon the graves of the fallen at the end of this suffering. Owen imbues this action with great humanity by describing it as being done with “tenderness.”

The last line of the poem is particularly powerful. Every passing day, “each slow dusk” he describes as the “drawing down of blinds.” First, drawing one’s blinds is a traditional way to demonstrate to the public that a house is in mourning. The women described in the previous lines would be doing this action during their grief. In addition though, when applied to the soldiers, the literal light of the world is gone for them, but with each passing day, their memories also fade and they fall farther into darkness. This is a particularly horrible tragedy in light of the fact that they died so young that they had too little time to create a legacy for which, or by which, that they might be better remembered.

Is the title of the poem, thus, an ironic title? I think here that it’s not intended to be ironic, but is instead a call to action. The Speaker wants the Reader to grieve the decisions that lead to the deaths of boys and he hopes that the Reader will rally society to do whatever is possible to prevent these needless deaths from happening.

Who is Wilfred Owen?

Wilfred Edward Salter Owen MC (18 March 1893 – 4 November 1918) was an English poet and soldier. He was one of the leading poets of the First World War. His war poetry on the horrors of trenches and gas warfare was much influenced by his mentor Siegfried Sassoon and stood in contrast to the public perception of war at the time and to the confidently patriotic verse written by earlier war poets such as Rupert Brooke. Among his best-known works – most of which were published posthumously – are “Dulce et Decorum est“, “Insensibility“, “Anthem for Doomed Youth“, “Futility“, “Spring Offensive” and “Strange Meeting“. Owen was killed in action on 4 November 1918, a week before the war’s end, at the age of 25.